“How do we slow down what matters the most and speed up what benefits change and progress? We don’t want to impede progress, but we are seeking reconnection to ourselves, to each other, and with the world.” --John Maeda
Today marks my first day of re-entering the world of constant stimulation after a week long vacation where all things technology were kept to a minimum. In order to savor the time away, I referred back to this powerful article that was in Good Magazine a few months ago called Hurry Up and Wait. In the article, Jennifer Leonard, Senior Project Leader at IDEO and co-author of Massive Change (with Bruce Mau), asked some of the world’s most prominent futurists (Julian Bleecker, Esther Dyson, Jamais Cascio, Bruce Sterling, John Maeda and Alexander Rose) "to explain why slowness might be as important to the future as speed."
Julian Bleecker, a designer, technologist, and co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory, devises “design-to-think experiments” that focus on interactions away from conventional computer settings. “When sitting at a screen and keyboard, everything is tuned to be as fast as possible,” he says. “It’s about diminishing time to nothing.”
So he asks, “Can we make design where time is inescapable and not be brought to zero? Would it be interesting if time were stretched, or had weight?” To test this idea, Bleeker built a Slow Messaging Device, which automatically delayed electronic (as in, e-mail) messages. Especially meaningful messages took an especially long time to arrive.
He says the SMD experiment is a reminder of a time when love letters were handwritten and posted by mail, often having to cross continents and oceans before reaching the recipient. “I wanted to revisit that experience of anticipation and uncertainty.”
He also wanted to observe the patterns in flows of people in the urban environment. So he conducted a research experiment with video cameras placed atop “a super long pole, looking down.” In postprocessing he obscured the fast-moving people, high-lighting what moved slowly or simply remained still.
“This became a visual reference to how much we normally don’t notice. Slowing down affords a different kind of understanding and sense of yourself in the world. Sometimes when I’m in Manhattan I decide that I’m just going to slow down and pay attention to different things.”
Bleecker follows the slow movement through Carolyn Strauss and her slowLab. “I like how a shift to ‘slow’ pushes us to reconsider the importance of time,” he says. “There’s a natural pace to things, and that includes a natural human pace. I hope the slow movement is not a fad, but broadens in a way to bring a different pace to the world.”
Esther Dyson notices the present in a way others don’t. Take a building, for example. “One will say it’s red with two stories,” she says. “Another will say it’s made out of wood, two hundred years old, with a pointed roof. And I will say, ‘Here’s the building. This is where the stresses are and here is where the floor is sagging.’”
Much of Dyson’s skill in spotting tensions can be traced back to her early economics studies at Harvard. “I felt it was a good way to understand the world. Economics is a fundamental mover, and it has helped me concentrate on the structure and dynamics and interactions of things.” She says one of the problems in business right now is its short-term thinking, which is spurred by the speed of the stock market. “When you can measure economic activity minute by minute, it makes it difficult, unfortunately, to not sacrifice long-term investment for short-term results.”
If it were up to Dyson, slowness would be invited into business and define gross domestic product differently, especially in relation to education and health care. “Our health-care system right now is all about repair. If you thought long-term, you’d be good to your body, which is good for the economy.”
Dyson, a cosmonaut in training with a background in journalism and IT start-ups, is good to her body—and to her mind. She spends an hour swimming laps every morning while considering the things she didn’t have time for the day before. “It’s not about delaying thinking. It’s about assigning a time to things when I can give them my full attention.”
Sleep is also part of it, she says. “People aren’t getting enough. They say they were up late watching TV, but TV doesn’t force you to watch it. It’s a choice. Maybe the best way to slow down is to sleep a little more, and pay more attention when you’re awake.”
The Worldchanging co-founder Jamais Cascio plays computer games to slow down. “Not the ones where I’m running around blowing people up,” he says, “but big strategy games that put me in a flow state. I lose track of time. I live in the never-ending moment of the game.” To him, futurism, like video games, is process-driven: It’s about multigenerational thinking, scenario mapping, and world building.
In his work as a research affiliate at the Institute for the Future and as a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, he helps people see that if you change the rules, you get a new world. In an era when high-frequency trading is in full effect—when computerized traders “make dog food out of human traders”—the tendency toward slowness is a reasonable response. “Recognizing that humans can’t compete with the processing speed of computerized systems, the slow movement is a catalyst for rules that support greater reflection and consideration.”
He says slower decision-making allows for greater resilience—a parallel philosophy to the slow movement dominant in the worlds of social psychology, environmental science, and international security. It refers to a system’s ability to withstand shocks, to rebuild when necessary, and to improve itself when possible. “A resilient system is not necessarily a strong system,” says Cascio. “A tree that bends in the wind is more resilient than a wall that stands still.”
And a system that allows for slack, like the slow movement, is more resilient than a system that assumes nothing ever fails. “Just-in-time manufacturing is really great when all component systems work perfectly, but when a part breaks down, the whole operation comes to a complete halt. Failure happens. So we’d better build in a way to absorb it.”
The science-fiction author Bruce Sterling says “pace layering”—the idea that different layers of a structure or a system move at different speeds—is an interesting notion when considering slowness, as it helps to explain the various rates of change associated with different sectors of society.
“The slow movement imagines itself to belong by rights to the cultural layer”—a slow-moving layer of society—“but it’s still in the layer of fashionable activism,” he says. “An earthquake is rapid and shocking, it seems, but the underlying forces are geologically slow. So it’s actually our perception of pacing that’s odd, not pacing itself.”
Much of our philosophizing about time is based on the human experience of it, despite the fact that the entire human experience of time to date is a tiny fraction of the actual duration of time. “Humans perceive things in embodied ways,” Sterling explains, “because our perception is an embodied phenomenon. We naturally tend to relate time to the experience of our own bodies. Every time we temporally stretch one of these abstractions—my grandparent’s generation, the American nation, Western civilization, modern Homo sapiens, the Devonian geological period—some apparent relevance drains out of it.”
It’s so much easier to relate to the present than it is to a faraway future. But the value in slowness, according to Sterling, is that people take a lot of comfort in measuring themselves against things that change slowly. “If everything in our lifetime changed at the same pace that we ourselves changed, we would never understand our own maturity.”
At the Rhode Island School of Design, where the artist, designer, and computer scientist John Maeda is now president, the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has long been touted as the key to fast-paced, cutting-edge innovation.
But Maeda says something is missing from STEM. And that is another acronym: IDEA (intuition, design, emotion, art). “Innovation must also be IDEA led. This is territory of meaningful and more thoughtful, or slow, advances. It’s about reflection, the human domain, and how we relate to change.”
According to Maeda, STEM and IDEA are necessary complements, just like other classic pairings, like, say, Bert and Ernie. “STEM alone is Bert, and IDEA is Ernie. Bert is kind of uptight and has to get things done all the time; Ernie’s a creative guy, in the tub with a rubber ducky, steeping in the moment and preparing to think about the general implications of his actions. Where Bert is fast-moving technology, Ernie is that reflective point we need as a counterbalance in our lives.”
Maeda sees the benefits of fast and slow: problem-solving “with dirty hands” at rapid speeds, as well as critical thinking and critical making at slow enough speeds to allow for the contemplation of the implications of art and design to the greater world.
Again, it’s about balance. And pacing. “You can’t sprint forever, but you can pull your pace down. I’m a jogger—a very slow runner. My runs help me reconnect to my body and re-sort the contents of my brain.”
For Maeda, the fundamental question becomes, “How do we slow down what matters the most and speed up what benefits change and progress? We don’t want to impede progress, but we are seeking reconnection to ourselves, to each other, and with the world.”
The artist and designer Alexander Rose, executive director of the Long Now Foundation, says long-term thinking comes from the same place as the slow movement. “Both recognize an ignored space, as we’ve increasingly given value to all things fast.”
One of the most iconic expressions of long-term thinking is the Long Now’s 10,000 Year Clock—a clock whose long life is intended to expand our sense of time—conceived by a computer scientist named Danny Hillis. According to the futurist godfather Stewart Brand, it is “a peephole of predictability through a deeply unpredictable series of events that will come at us in the future.”
Rose describes it as “a piece of theater; a thing to rally around and change the conversation” in a more tangible way than the well-attended Long Now lecture series. “You can’t tell someone to think long-term, but you can give them a range of contexts so they can find their own way to relate to it personally.”
For Rose, involvement in long-term thinking has given him a fresh view on product design, and the planned obsolescence in consumer products today. “I see more clearly how little need there is for all the consumption and waste. I like what [the inventor] Saul Griffith once said. Everyone should receive a Montblanc pen and Rolex watch at birth, and then they’d never need to replace them in a lifetime.”
Rose also finds value in “the whole DIY or maker culture, which enters into the same category as things built to last, or things that last longer because you take them apart manually and build them back anew with found parts.”
This happens all the time in developing parts of the world, of course. “Yes, I think the slow movement is very First-World-urban-environment targeted. If you’re an agrarian human, slow food is actually your only option. So we need to be careful not to overly romanticize ‘slow’ in this way. There’s a balance between poverty and privilege.”
***I'm particularly fond of the illustrations in this article, which are the amazing work of Mark Weaver.